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All the things the library has done for Halifax residents since shutting its doors for COVID-19

All hail the city's unofficial social worker.

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Get all the goodness that a public library has to offer repackaged to enjoy from your home. - PHOTO IZABELLE ACHESON, EDIT CAORA MCKENNA
  • Photo Izabelle Acheson, edit Caora McKenna
  • Get all the goodness that a public library has to offer repackaged to enjoy from your home.

Since Halifax Public Libraries had to close its doors to the public on March 16 thanks to the coronavirus, its staff has worked to come up with creative and innovative ways to uphold the ever-expanding responsibilities libraries hold in our communities. 

HPL chief librarian and CEO Åsa Kachan appeared before regional council on Wednesday, in order to provide more info on what stays and what goes in the proposed five percent trim of the library's budget for 2020/21. During the webcast meeting, Kachan told the councillors and mayor Mike Savage that she and her staff have been in full-response mode since C19 arrived, helping the city while staying true to the library’s purpose. 

It's problem solving in real-time, with residents stuck at home but screaming for services, and it's working. “As we have pivoted,” Kachan said, “the things we are doing are resonating with our community.”

From allowing residents to get a library card online (5,300 people have signed up for a library card in two months) to beefing up online services (April had 34,000 more online titles checked out than February) to providing portable toilets outside downtown's Central Library and expanding wifi zones for folks with no internet access, the library has been honing its ability to pay attention to those in our communities who are often overlooked. 

Kachan's concern for the community members served by the library—“this is a time that if anything has heightened the vulnerabilities”—is guiding the library’s response to COVID-19. 

“I’m absolutely in awe of how the library has been able to completely reinvent themselves in such a short period of time,” said councillor Lisa Blackburn on Wednesday.

Awe-inducing action that's the product of something simple: "The best thing we can do," Kachan said, "is listen." 

Here’s a list of what Halifax Public Libraries has been able to do in just 66 days: 

  • Reorganized website to prioritize virtual services and brought whole programs online through the Virtual Library.
  • Upgraded the E-Library to make in-branch services like PressReader and Ancestry available at home; introduced new online resources like Kanopy, RomanceBookCloud, Public Library Online and TumbleBooksMath.
  • Set up an Ask the Library phone line to connect with and provide assistance to our community.
  • Provided snack packs for families at Chebucto Connections in Spryfield, Dartmouth North Community Food Centre, Family SOS in Greystone area Spryfield, Freedom Kitchen in Sackville and North Preston's Future. (In the before times, many children relied on libraries for healthy, free, after school snacks.)
  • Loaned community organizations some technology items, including wifi hotspots and Chromebooks to a couple of shelters, and books and games to a children’s service provider.
  • With the help of HRM’s public safety officer Amy Siciliano, set up portable toilets at Halifax Central Library to ensure everyone in our community has access to washrooms.
  • Worked with Community Volunteer Income Tax Program (CVITP) to offer virtual tax clinics in lieu of the in-person ones previously offered.
  • Shifted staff to lead content for the Human Library Videos (storytime, how-to’s), social media and website blogs.

Before COVID, one of the aims of a library was to get people to linger, but in future, “When connecting feels a little bit dangerous we need to rethink that,” Kachan said.

She’s part of a national think tank brainstorming ideas on how to move forward, and in the meantime has kicked off the pilot phase of a curbside pickup program. (HRM residents with poor internet access still waiting for the province to get a move on? The library is listening to you, too.)

Sheet Harbour was the first trial, and Woodlawn library is starting to make calls this week. Slowly but surely other branches will be brought in. 

Then it's on to rethinking the Summer Reading Club, Asian Heritage Month and Pride events for digital audiences. 

And Kachan said that while some of these changes are stop-gaps while Halifax adjusts to the new normal, a few things, like the expanded digital collections, may become permanent fixtures. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. And widening the wifi coverage to spill outside of the libraries for residents who don’t have at-home internet or a home at all? 

Kachan said: “We’ll never turn that off.”

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